How did Garfield Die? [Part 5]


Friday: (Harper’s Magazine, Volume 25, 673)

On September 26, 1881, President Garfield’s body arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, (not far from his home in Mentor). The engraving above shows Garfield’s catafalque, solemnly escorted by honor guards and mourning citizens. Many felt they had lost more than a man; they had lost the promise of equity he represented. At the autopsy after Garfield’s death, people found that the bullet did not strike any major organs, arteries or veins. Today, historians of medicine generally agree that Garfield’s wound was not lethal, but caused by infection introduced, sadly, by his own physician. In the wake of the catastrophe, germ theory gained wider acceptance–and so, perhaps due to Garfield’s sad but high-profile case, more lives were later saved by antiseptic medicine. Garfield was permanently buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, and his monument still stands as a testament to this chapter of medical history–the transition to modern antiseptic!

How Did President Garfield Die? [part 3]

Continuing our series on Garfield’s death–join us for the talk Thursday, and read more at the Plain Dealer,!

wednesdayWednesday: (Harper’s Magazine, Volume 25, 628)

On September 17, 1881, Harper’s Weekly published these scenes with the following titles: “Removing the President from the White House” and “Removing the president from the Express Wagon to the Railway car.” He had already been bedridden some time and through the hottest months. When September arrived, the President demanded to be removed from to the seaside; Dr. Bliss tried to forbid it, but Garfield insisted that he was not asking permission. Carefully removed to a train, he was transported to the Francklyn Cottage in Elberon, New Jersey, with loyal followers throwing straw on the tracks to make the ride easier.  Garfield had always found comfort and peace in seeing the ocean; however, the fresh airs and tranquility did not aid to his recovery. In the following weeks the President’s conditioned worsened.

Posting by Celia Wan, Dittrick Museum Intern

How Did Garfield Die? (part 2)

Continuing our series from Monday–come hear more at Thursday’s EVENT!

tuesdayTuesday: (Picture source: Kouwenhoven, John Atlee. Adventures of America, 1857-1900: A Pictorial Record from Harper’s Weekly. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938. Print.)

In this wood engraving published on August 13, 1881, President Garfield appears lying on the bed while Alexander Bell, the father of the telephone, looks for the bullet with an electronic detector. Bell’s device failed to find the bullet, but in part this was due to Dr. Bliss, who prevented Bell from being more thorough. Other industrial inventions were also applied to relieve the pain felt by Garfield. For example, the president’s room was “air-conditioned” by fans that blew air over ice. Even so, none of these industrial miracles could overcome the fatal infection brought on by doctors’ dirty, unsterilized fingers and instruments. At the end of August, President Garfield’s health had seriously declined.

Posting by Celia Wan, Dittrick Museum Intern

How Did President Garfield Die??

Have you ever wondered? President Garfield felled–but not by a bullet!

On July 2, 1881, President James Garfield was shot by a disgruntle federal job seeker, Charles Guiteau. Although nonfatal, these two shots eventually caused President Garfield’s death, due to the lack antiseptic procedures during his treatment. President Garfield’s doctor probed the abdominal wound with his fingers and failed to locate the bullet in his body!

The tragedy of President Garfield was detailed in countless newspapers across the United States in the summer of 1881, which triggered nationwide concerns on causes of infection and protection of public health. This week, our blog will chronicle the assassination of President Garfield by featuring one newspaper illustration every day! Join us for the “live” updates–and then register for a free event!

This unfortunate story will be concluded by our panel, CONVERSATIONS: Presidents, Public Health, and Pre-antiseptic Medicine,  on Thursday, September 15th in the Dittrick Museum/Allen Library Powell Reading Room. Brandy Schillace, PhD and TEDx speaker, will give the history. Eric Rivet, Western Reserve Historical Society Curator of Collections and Exhibits and Scott Frank, Director of CWRU Master of Public Health Program and Director of Shaker Heights Health Department, will join us in the discussion!

mondaySource: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The tragedy at Washington — the night-watch before the Executive Mansion.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1881 – 1881. 

On the night of July 8, 1881, worried citizens congregated in front of white house, waiting for news on President Garfield’s health. At 9:30 am on that same day, the President was assassinated by Charles Guiteau at a railroad station in Washington D.C.. On his trip to his Alma Mater, Williams College, for a speech, the President received two shots upon entering the waiting room at the station. However, it was later reported that none of the bullets hit Garfield lethally. Guiteau was arrested before he could walk out of the train station and he soon surrendered to the police.

Although shocked, Garfield remained conscious after the assassination. He was transported back to the White House for medical treatment. In the following months, the regular bulletins issued by the President’s doctors kept the concerned public updated on his health condition. Stay tuned!!

Arguing Insanity: The Trial of President Garfield’s Assassin

Who Assassinated the President?

When Charles Guiteau bought an ivory-handled British Bull Dog Revolver, he was thinking of which weapon was going to look best in a museum. Because his was a mission inspired by God; he was to kill the president.


On July 2nd, 1881, after weeks of stalking him, Guiteau shot President Garfield at a public train station. The bullet from his revolver entered the president’s back, leaving shattered vertebra in its wake before becoming lodged somewhere behind his pancreas [1].

Medical historians have since determined it was the probing of his wound with dirty hands and unclean instruments by Garfield’s many physicians which lead to his septicemia and inevitable death on September 19th [2]. In fact, at his trial, Guiteau mentioned that while he acted as shooter, it was “the doctors [who] finished the work” [3, p. 138]. The aftermath of President Garfield’s passing made better antiseptic techniques a surgical necessity.


However, medical history was made on both sides of the assassin’s gun.

The trial of Guiteau, which began November 7th, 1881, was the first high profile case in the United States where a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity was ever considered. At this point in history, the physicians called upon to define insanity did so from a variety of perspectives [4].

Insanity: Evidence or Opinion?

For the defense, expert witnesses pointed to Guiteau’s “lopsided smile” and “congenital evidence of insanity” such as the abnormal shape of his skull and a “defect in his speech” [3, p. 203]. While some of the physicians working with the prosecution agreed that skull shape could indicate insanity, they found no such evidence in the defendant. Other physicians considered insanity to be a disease caused by “cerebral lesions”—but denied that Guiteau could have been experiencing such lesions as he had displayed far too much rationality.

L0016100 Six pictures of crania and heads of the insane.While the prosecution’s witnesses believed that Guiteau was likely a “depraved” or “eccentric” man, they claimed he had been in possession of his faculties on July 2nd, and thus was guilty of murder [3]. They also determined that his erratic behavior in court was an act meant to support his insanity plea.

While the doctors argued whether insanity was an inborn or contracted condition, and what the role of delusion was, the determination of guilt remained the jury’s. For months they watched the man who had killed their president compare himself to St. Paul and sign autographs in the courtroom [5].

Thus, despite Guiteau’s continued planning of a lecture tour and a run for the presidency in 1884, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging [3]. Dr. Walter Channing summed up the public’s general opinion: Guiteau was “crazy, perhaps, but not so crazy that he should not be hung.” For, while the depths of sympathy were great for the president and his family, there was “little feeling for the doer of the foul deed.” [4, p. 3]


In such a scenario, is medical evidence truly considered or simply used to alleviate a nation’s need for retribution? I leave you with the words of Channing on the subject:

The verdict shows how uncertain the boundaries are to the disease called insanity. In a case where the symptoms are at all obscure, we can almost make ourselves believe anything that we choose to. [4, p. 4]

Continue reading Arguing Insanity: The Trial of President Garfield’s Assassin